18 July 2017

Who should own the Koh i Noor Diamond - Britain, India, Pakistan, Iran or Afghanistan?

Britain and India are not the only nations making claim to the amaz­ing Koh-i-Noor diamond. Half the nations in Central Asia have been, or will be in court over this treasure.

Up until 1304 the diamond was held by the Indian Rajas of Malwa. By 1304 the diamond came into the possession of the Emperor of Delhi, Allaudin Khilji. Then in 1339 the diamond was taken to the city of Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan), where it stayed for centuries.

Clearly the diamond variously belonged to all the Indian and Persian rul­ers who fought bitter battles throughout history. In 1526 the Mog­­ul ruler Babur mentioned the diamond, gifted to him by the Sultan Ib­rahim Lodi of Delhi, in his writings. At 793 carats, it must have looked superb.

Shah Jahan (1592–1666) was the ruler who commissioned the Taj Mahal mausoleum. But he also commissioned the very glamorous Peacock Throne, the Mughal throne of India in Delhi. The Koh-I-Noor was mounted on this very special piece of furniture. When he was imprisoned by his son Aurangazeb, Shah Jahan could only ever see his beloved Taj Mahal via the reflection in the diamond.

Aurangzeb might have been cruel to his own father, but at least he protected the diamond by having it cut down by a Venetian specialist to 186 carats, then brought the Koh-I-Noor to the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore. Aurangzeb passed the jewel on to his heirs but Mahamad, Aurangzeb’s grandson, was not a great ruler like his grandfather. Sultan Mahamad lost a decisive battle to Nader.

Queen Alexandra's corontation 1902, 
with the Koh-i-Noor in the centre of her crown

Emperor Nader Shah, Shah of Persia (1736–47) and the founder of the Afsharid dynasty of Persia, invaded the Mughal Empire, event­ually attacking Delhi in March 1739. So Nader Shah took the diamond back to Persia and gave it its current name, Koh-i-noor/Mountain of Light. But Nader Shah did not live for long, because in 1747 he was assass­in­ated and the diamond went to his general, Ahmad Shah Durrani.

The defeated ruler of Afghanistan Shah Shuja Durrani brought the Koh-i-noor back to the Punjab in India in 1813 and gave it to Ranjit Singh, founder of the Sikh Empire. Durrani made a deal: he would surrender the diamond to the Sikhs in exchange for help in winning back his Afghan throne.

Most of the Punjab region (including Delhi and Lahore) was annexed by Britain’s East India Company in 1849, and then moved to British cont­rol. The last Maharajah of the Sikhs, the 10 year old child Duleep Singh, wept when land and treasures of the Sikh Empire were confiscated by governor-general of India, Lord Dalhousie, and taken as war compen­sat­ion.  The diamond, the most tragic theft of all, was formally transferred to the treasury of the Brit­ish East India Co in Lahore! Even the Treaty of Lahore specifically discussed the fate of the Koh-i-Noor, in writing.

The diamond was proudly shipped by Lord Dalhousie to Queen Victoria in July 1850. It was a symbol of Victorian Britain's imperial domination of the world and its ability to take the most desirable objects from across the Empire... to display in British triumph.

And then it was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Crys­tal Palace, in the south­ern central gallery. World Fairs were of­ten used to display a country’s greatest treasures. So, as expected, there was enormous excite­ment in Crystal Palace when official com­mentators and the general public first saw the jewel. Although there were 100,000 other exhibits displayed in Crystal Palace, the queues to see Queen Victoria’s diamond were the longest of all.

In 1852 the Queen decided to reshape the diamond and it was taken to a Dutch jeweller to re-cut it. The Koh-i-Noor had originally been one of the world’s largest uncut diamonds, but by 1852 the size had been reduced again, this time down to 106 carats. Queen Victoria wore the diamond occasionally afterwards. She wrote in her will that the Koh-i-noor should only be worn by queens.

After Queen Victoria died, the Koh-i-Noor diamond was crafted into the Crown Jew­els and displayed at the Tower of London.

The Koh i Noor diamond, set in the Maltese Cross at the front of the crown
106 carats during Victoria's reign.

In 1947, the partition of India led to the Punjab being divided into the newly created Union of India and Dominion of Pakistan. This partition has influenced the cases brought in Brit­ish courts over the last few years. Recently the descendants of the last Maharaja of the Sikh Empire said they were forced to hand over the Koh-i-Noor diamond to the British; they launched a court action in the UK to get the diamond back in Sept 2012. The case depended on the diamond being one of the many artefacts taken from India under ugly circumstances. The Indian lawyers claimed the British colon­isation of India had stolen wealth and destroyed the country’s psyche. Their court case failed.

But India was not the only nation with a historical claim to the diamond – it had passed through Persian, Hindu, Mughal, Turkic, Afghan and Sikh owners centuries before it was seized by the British in the C19th. So expect the British to face another legal battle, after a Pakistani judge accepted a petition de­manding that the Queen hand the $200 million stone back to them. Mind you, in 2013 the Prime Minister David Cameron said that returning the stone was out of the question. Will the next prime minister say the same to Persia/Iran?

Historians last question is "what is the proper response to imperial looting?" Read the brand new book Koh-i-Noor: The History of the World's Most Infamous Diamond by William Dalrymple and Anita Anand, published by Bloomsbury in 2017. The history of the Koh-i-Noor, that was accepted by the Brit­ish, is no longer a glorious piece of the nation’s colonial past. That history is finally challenged! The resulting version, now pub­lished, is one of greed, murder, wars, torture, colonialism and approp­riation.

15 July 2017

3 fake Brett Whiteley paintings: the nation’s biggest art fraud?

Australia's most famous modern artist, Brett Whiteley, married Wendy Julius in 1962; their only child Arkie (1964-2001) became a talented actress. After the traumatic law case over her late father's will, Arkie developed cancers in her lungs and liver, tragically dying aged 37.

In the meantime, Brett’s career as a painter blossomed. His Sydney Harbour scenes appeared in the collections of all the large Australian galleries, and was twice winner of the presitigious Archibald Prize. He held many exhibitions, living and painting in Australia, Britain and Italy.

In 1967 Whiteley won a scholarship to study and work in the USA. There he met other artists and musicians while he lived at the Hotel Chelsea New York, befriending musicians Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan. Perhaps in New York, Whiteley became increasingly addicted to her­oin and alcohol.

Back in Australia his work output began to decline, al­though its market value continued to climb. He made several attempts to elim­inate drugs completely, alas unsuccessfully. In 1989, he and Wendy, whom he had always credited as his muse, divorced. Al­th­ough they div­orced three years before Brett’s death from a heroin overdose in 1992, Wendy Whiteley al­ways controlled Brett's estate, including the copyright to his works. She went on to play an imp­or­t­ant role in the estab­lishment of the Brett Whiteley Studio in Surry Hills, part of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Mark Russell discussed two art men in Melbourne who were found guilty of Austral­ia's biggest art fraud, after selling forged paintings in the style of Brett Whiteley for a total of $3.6 million. In April 2016, the Crown claimed art conservator Mohamed Siddique painted the artworks in his Collingwood studio. Art dealer Peter Gant then passed them off to unsuspecting buyers as or­iginal 1988 Whiteley paintings. At some time in the past Mr Gant had indeed bought a real Whiteley painting, View From The Sitting Room Window Lav­ender Bay for $1.7 mill. This authentic work was then sent to Mr Siddique a short time later, to use as a blue­print to create fake paintings.

Theirs was a joint criminal enterprise for the creation of paintings in the style of Brett Whiteley: Big Blue Lavender Bay, Orange Lavender Bay and Through the Window Lavender Bay. Blue Lavender Bay was sold for $2.5 million to Sydney Swans chairman in 2007 and Orange Laven­d­er Bay sold for $1.1 m to a Sydney luxury car dealer in 2009. The Crown claimed the third fake, Through the Window, was offered for sale by Mr Gant for $950,000.

Brett Whiteley
Blue Lavender Bay, 1988 
sold for $2.5 million. 
Was it a fake?

Brett Whiteley
Orange Lavender Bay, 1988 
sold for $1.1 million. 
Was it also a fake?

The men's defence barristers argued that the sold paintings were Whiteley originals, bought from the artist's manager by Mr Gant and kept in storage for nearly 20 years. And photographer Jeremy James told the court that he had snapped both Big Blue and Orange Lavender Bay for a 1989 Gant catalogue. While the two art dealers readily admitted that the three paintings were not Whiteley's best work, they explained to the court that Whiteley had been a heroin addict in 1988.

Yet no art dealers had the same intimate knowledge of Brett White­ley's work as his widow, Wendy, who was adamant the paintings were fakes. Having lived with Brett’s art since 1962, she was shocked and stunned by the defendants. Her worse fear was that had Gant and Siddique been found not guilty, Brett's real legacy would be negatively affected.

When the 2016 trial heard the evidence, the jury was not allowed to hear about artists Bob Dickerson and Charles Blackman’s successful court case against Peter Gant for selling fake copies of their works. Unfortunately for the artists, Gant was soon declared bank­rupt and wasn’t able to pay them back for their losses.

In the Whiteley case, Justice Michael Croucher ruled the lack of proof had so seriously damaged the Crown's case, the jury could have leave to immediately acquit the men. However the jury still found them guilty: Mr Gant was guilty of two counts of obtaining a finan­cial advantage by deception and one of attempting to obtain a financial advantage by deception involving the three other artworks. Mr Siddique was found guilty of two counts of ob­taining a financial advantage by deception and one count of attempt­ing to obtain a financial advantage by deception.

At the pre-sentence hearing for the two men, Gant got five years and Siddique got three years. In the meantime Justice Croucher provided a detailed report to the Court of Appeal on why he bel­ieved the jury should have acquitted Gant and Siddique of the nation’s biggest alleged art fraud.

Brett Whiteley
Self Portrait in the Studio, 1976
Art Gallery of NSW.

In 2016, both Gant and Suddique had unsuccessfully professed their inn­ocence. So imagine the shock when, as Rebecca Urban reported,  the case fell over in April 2017. After a last-minute concession from prosecutors, the three presiding judges returned to the court and quashed the convictions of Mr Gant and Mr Siddique. The two men walked free from Court of Appeal.

The decision by the Victorian Court of Appeal sent shock­-waves through the art industry. And yet I still cannot find any police officers in this country specifically responsible for tracking art crime nor can I find an effective database for record­ing stolen art. The Whiteley, Dickerson and Blackman cases were not the only art crimes in Australia of course:  in 1977 twenty-seven works by Grace Cossington Smith were stolen from the Macquarie Gallery in NSW and have never been recovered.

11 July 2017

Selling Alaska - Russia, USA, Canada

From 1725, when Russian Czar Peter the Great sent Vit­us Bering to explore the Alaskan coast, Russia started to focus on the reg­ion. So it surprised no-one that into the C19th, Russian Alaska be­came a centre of international trade. Russian merchants were drawn to Alaska for the treasured walrus iv­ory and the valuable sea otter fur, acquired by trading with the reg­ion’s indig­enous peoples. The Russian-American Company/RAC, Russia's first joint-stock company, was started by C18th Russian businessmen, risk-taking travellers and entre­preneurs.

Like the East India Co. and the Hudson Bay Co. in Canada, the RAC controlled all of Alaska’s mines and minerals and could in­dep­end­ently enter into trade agree­ments with other count­ries. These privileges were granted by the Russian imperial govern­ment and in return, the govern­ment collected massive taxes from the com­pany. Even the tsars and their family members were among the share-holders.

Alaska: between Canada to the east and Russia to the west

The first governor of the Russian settlements in America had been a mer­chant called Alexander Baranov (1747–1819). He built schools and fact­ories, taught the native people to plant potatoes, expanded the sea otter trade and built shipyards. Under the first governor, the Company brought in enormous revenues. When Baranov resigned in 1817, he was replaced by Navy Captain Ludwig von Hagemeister, who brought with him new employees and shareholders from milit­ary circles. The new masters set HUGE salaries for themselves.

The Russians bought fur from the local population for half price, so over the next 20 years, almost all the sea otters disappeared. When Alaska lost its most profitable trade, the locals staged uprisings that the Russians quickly quashed. Then the officers had to look for other sources of revenue – Chinese fabrics, ice, coal and tea in part­icular. And, it was suggested, people already knew about poss­ible gold deposits in the area. These were products that the southern parts of the USA needed.

In the capital, Novo Arkhangelsk, Russians were doing well. Ships and factories were built, and coal was mined. But as the USA expand­ed westward in the early 1800s, Amer­ic­ans set themselves up in competit­ion with Russian expl­orers and traders. Unfortunately for St Petersburg, Russia lacked the financial resources to support major settlements or a military presence along North America’s Pacific coast; permanent Russian settlers in Alaska rarely rose above 400.

Then the Crimean War broke out in October 1853, and Britain, France and Turkey went into an alliance against Russia. It became clear that Russia could neith­er supply nor defend Alaska, given that the sea routes were controlled by the allies’ ships. Defeat in the Crim­ean War in Feb 1856 further reduced Russian confidence in the north Pacific.. to the point where the Russians had a realistic fear that the British would totally block Alaska.

At the very time that tension between Russia and Britain grew, Russian relations with the American authorities were warming up. And since the idea of selling Alaska seemed to be mutually beneficial to both Russia and the USA, Russia offered to sell Alaska to the USA in 1859. Anything that would block Russia’s greatest rival in the Pacific, Great Brit­ain! But the time was not right for the USA. The looming American Civil War (1861-5) delayed the sale.

Why didn’t Russia offer Alaska to the more sensible, neighbouring country, Canada? I can think of two reasons. Firstly there was no central government on the West side of Canada yet, even though four eastern provinces already confederated in 1867. Secondly Canada was part of the British Empire, Russia’s worst enemy at the time.

While the Russian and American officials were working on a deal, public opinion in both coun­tries expressed opposition. The Russians asked how they could give away land that they had put so much effort and time into dev­el­oping, the land where gold mines had been found. The Americans asked why they needed a frozen, useless land with 50,000 wild indigenous people. The American Congress may have also dis­ap­proved of the purchase. 

Alaska Treaty of Cessation, 30th March 1867. 
Signed by Secretary of State William Seward and Russian minister Eduard de Stoeckl

It was only after the Civil War that Russia’s envoy in Washington, Baron Eduard de Stoeckl, could move ahead on behalf of the Tsar. Stoeckl got together with American Secretary of State William Seward in Washing­ton. In March 1867, Seward formally agreed to a proposal to purchase the 1.5 million hec­tares of Russian prop­er­ty in Al­aska for $7.2 million. The Senate approved the treaty of purchase and President Andrew Johnson signed the treaty in May. Alaska was form­ally trans­fer­red to the USA in Oct 1867. This $7.2 million deal, a rid­ic­ulously small sum, ended Russia’s presence in North America and ensured American access to the Pacific northern rim.

The formal handover of the land took place in Novo Arkhang­el­sk. The Am­eric­an and Russian soldiers lined up next to the flagpole, the Russian flag went down and the canons fired. Afterward, the Americ­ans started requisitioning the town’s buildings, and renamed the town as Sitka. The hundreds of Russians who decided not to take American citizenship had to flee on mer­chant ships.

For decades after its purchase, the USA paid little attention to Al­aska; the area was governed under military, naval or Treasury rule. Seeking a way to impose American mining laws, the USA only const­ituted a civil gov­ernment in 1884. The timing was perfect, given that a gold rush was exploding in Alaska. The Klond­ike Gold Rush started in 1896, bring­ing the USA hundreds of mill­ions of dollars. Of course the Rus­sians were devast­ated.  Even the previously scept­ical Am­er­ic­ans were thrilled. William Seward had really only been vin­dic­ated when Alaska became the gateway to the Klondike gold fields!

I would argue that the Russians had made the correct decision back in 1867; Alaska had never been “stolen” by American soldiers or pol­it­icians. How often, in the light of subsequent events, do nations look back at earlier decisions with regret?

The sale of Alaska had clearly marked the end of Russian efforts to expand trade and settlements to the Pacific coast of North America; it was therefore an important step in the USA’s rise as a great power in the Asia-Pacific region. But that begs another question. How would relations between the world’s largest powers have develop­ed, had Russia not sold Alaska in its time of military and financial difficulties?

Alaska became an American state in Jan 1959.